Dozens of beachgoers formed a human chain stretching almost 100 yards into the Gulf of Mexico to rescue a group of swimmers in danger of drowning after they were caught in a powerful riptide.
Six members of the same family, including a grandmother who suffered a heart attack, were among nine people passed along the chain to safety at Florida’s Panama City beach on Saturday evening.
“It was a wave of humanity that brings some things back into focus, that maybe we haven’t lost all hope in this world,” Derek Simmons, an Alabama native who quickly organised the chain and swam with his wife Jessica to rescue the stranded group, told the Guardian on Tuesday.
Simmons said he was enjoying a family picnic on the beach with his mother, wife, two nieces and one of their boyfriends when they noticed people in a group on the sands close to the pier, some pointing into the water.
“We thought it was a shark; we have a ton of those,” said Simmons, who moved with his wife to Panama City from Alabama last year.
“We walked down to see what was going on and I asked the guy furthest out if everything was OK. He said: ‘No, those people out there are drowning, I can’t get to them because the current’s too strong.’
“I said to the guy: ‘Let’s try to get as many people as we can to form a human chain.’ If you know about ants, you know when one’s in trouble they form a chain to help it. My theory was, let’s get enough people, we’ll get out there and pull them in and everybody can finish having a good rest of the evening.”
At first, he said, people appeared reluctant, fearing they would be caught in the same riptide. “We were yelling at the beach, we need more people,” he said.
Then more beachgoers raced to join the chain, allowing Simmons, 26, and his 29-year-old wife to swim further out on their body boards and reach the group, which included a young family with two small boys and the grandmother, who were attempting to keep afloat but gulping in seawater.
The couple first…